I’m often asked which musical attribute I hold in highest regard during my analysis of a song. Though my response has wavered from coherent and logical melodies to thick tonal density and so on, at this point in my life I find that the most honest answer is originality. When a band produces something truly original, I believe that it deserves to be applauded, even if it is not an unmitigated success. Musical originality comes in two forms. The first exists as a platform towards some sort of genre shift; a creation of a virgin sound or pattern. The second form is derived from merely combining elements that might have seemed mismatched out of context. The danger of this second form is that there are an infinite number of ways in which such odd combinations simply will not work, as well as there always being the potential to sound like several constituent influences instead of their synthesis. Albums like Bjork’s Biophilia are not perfect, but succeed where they do because they firmly subscribe to the first form of originality. Albums like Pepe Deluxé’s Queen of the Wave fail because they rely too heavily on the latter form and all too often succumb to the temptation to ornament without true purpose. Buried deep within this bombastic and maximalist set of songs are a collection of more purified and logical ones. Unfortunately, they are clouded by layer upon layer of misshapen ideas whose combinations of instruments, while arguably original, do little more than prevent the listener from being able to access the core of the album.
Opener “Queenswave,” has a distinctly “Come Together”-esque vibe. Given that “Come Together” remains one of the all-time greatest opening statements to an album, this would seem to forecast good decision making skills, however, soon enough the album reveals its tendency to rely on tangents, some of which work while most do not. The pan flutes are gratuitous, but a scuzzy guitar line that would not have seemed out of place on St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy fits right in. Eventually, the excesses win out and the finished product never quite escapes the trappings of its gimmicks.
This same pattern further hinders tracks such as “Go Supersonic,” which suffers from a lack of any thread tying the piece together. Its composition is akin to trying to build a puzzle from ten different sets. The pieces work just fine on their own, but they simply don’t belong together. Unlike several of the other incomprehensible tracks on the album, “Go Supersonic,” goes one step further into being merely annoying at times. There is no inspiration to the fundamental organ line and the propulsion that drives the chorus is little more than repetitive.
It is on the slower tracks that Queen of the Wave finds its voice. “Temple of Unfed Fire” utilizes a more traditional ensemble (traditional for acolytes of The Doors at least), and though it is hardly memorable, it succeeds because of its simplicity, not in spite of it. “Contain Thyself” is another small triumph. Its usage of odd ornamentation reinforces its suggestion of a Renaissance fair as opposed to demanding that the listener subscribe to this idea. When the drums and guitar double the intensity half-way through the track, excellent harmonies and a tasteful trumpet solo emerge, leading to a denouement that is among the strongest moments on the album. Furthermore, “Contain Thyself” must be acknowledged for knowing when to make its exit. It is exactly as long as it needs to be, a virtue which Queen of the Wave should have held more dear.
Doubtlessly, the album’s highlight arrives with “My Flaming Thirst,” another track that moves at a more deliberate pace. Here, Pepe Deluxé trims the excess and relies on excellent piano lines and haunted house harmonies. The highest praise that can be given to this song is that it could easily survive as a solo piano interpretation. This is not to say that the vocals and orchestrations are not warranted because for once, they are, it is just that this is the rare track whose core is strong enough to support the weight placed on top of it.
Perhaps the biggest shame here is the obvious talent that is hidden in plain sight. Like the beautiful girl who needlessly douses herself in makeup, Pepe Deluxé shoots itself in the foot by not relying on its considerable talents. “A Night and A Day”‘ could have sounded like a dream collaboration between Kasabian and Basement Jaxx (glockenspiel and all), but it undercuts itself with an odd Beatles-styled interlude featuring vocals that would make more sense on Moon Safari than anything from this decade. The drumming, as on virtually every track, is dynamic and exhilarating, but is wasted as just another piece of an all too massive ensemble. To add insult to injury, the song ends with a needless arpeggiation, a trick that bands such as Grandaddy already succeeded with ten years ago and is rendered pointless here. The considerable moods that Pepe Deluxé set up are similarly underused. Austin Powers, James Bond, and the 60s in general are conjured in “Hesperus Garden,” but no villain appears to be squished, no new characterization arises, and the theme is taken nowhere. Instead, it merely reappears on the nearly unlistenable “The Storm,” a track which might succeed as nod to the work of Shirley Bassey if it didn’t feel stuffed to the point of imminent explosion.
Queen of the Wave ends appropriately with “Riders of the First Ark,” one of the album’s better tracks, featuring a zombified Jim Morrison vocal, a logical chord progression, and just the right amount of ornamentation. Even more fittingly, the song then concludes with a wave crashing on a beach followed by a brief hidden track that no one was expecting or hoping for. This not being Kid A, it is a perfectly nonsensical ending to a perfectly nonsensical album. This wave might serve a purpose according to the band. Hell, every gripe explored here might be explained away, but to this listener, all the talent in the world can’t cover up the fact that Queen of the Wave simply tries too hard and succeeds too infrequently.